In his work after the early Socratic dialogues — most notably The Republic — Plato expounded his totalitarian theory motivated by a form of backward-looking radicalism. Popper summarizes Plato’s sociology in two mottoes: First, ‘arrest all political change!’, and, second, ‘back to nature!’ (The Open Society and Its Enemies, 1945, p. 83). ‘Nature’ here is a shorthand for the tribal patriarchy before the ascent of democracy in Athens.
Plato was greatly influenced by Heraclitus, who had experienced firsthand the political changes from tribal aristocracy to democracy — a social revolution that threatened ‘the stability and rigidity of social life’ of the tribal aristocracy (Open Society, p. 11). Like Heraclitus, Plato believed in ‘a general historical tendency towards corruption’ in political organization and morality. His plan for stopping this corruption was to ‘arrest all political change’, and, influenced by Hesiod, to return to an alleged Golden Age of tribal aristocracy ‘which existed at the dawn of history’ (Open Society, pp. 20, and 23).
Through Socrates’ mouth, Plato tells us in The Republic: ‘Evil is everything that destroys or corrupts, while good is everything that preserves’ (Republic, 608e quoted in Open Society, p. 36). To get back to that ideal Golden Age, Plato proposes the political institution of ‘philosopher kings’ — his ‘elect few’. According to Plato, these philosopher kings are rulers who possess expert moral and political knowledge, and can employ the power of their reason to restore the Golden Age. As Popper notes, ‘the philosopher king seems to be, partly, a copy of a tribal priest king’ (Open Society., p. 139).
To convince his readers about his good intentions, in The Republic Plato constructs an argument in favor of what Popper calls ‘totalitarian justice’. As Plato’s ‘criterion of morality is the interest of the state’ (Open Society, p. 102), he subverts the idea of justice and presents as just whatever serves his ideal State. For Plato, just is whatever leads to his ideal State and avoids its corruption. People are meant to perform their predestined and immutable ‘functions’, so that Plato’s grand scheme can be realized. ‘[F]or Plato … an altruistic individualism … cannot exist’, Popper notes (Open Society, p. 97). With a masterful sleight of hand, reminiscent of modern populist politicians, Plato equates justice at the individual level to anti-social selfishness (Open Society, pp. 96–8).
Plato is a radical. He wants to arrest all change in society, and go back to the Golden Age. Knowledge and the power of reason are the means through which he wants to achieve this. This supreme knowledge is what legitimizes the power of the philosopher kings in Plato’s scheme. But there’s a problem: other people. Easy, Plato has Socrates claim: they will impose state censorship and control over all aspects of education and entertainment, so as to steer people into their proper place within the State. To this effect, Plato suggests political lying as a legitimate method. He has Socrates claim that ‘[t]he rulers will probably have to rely a lot on falsehood and deceit … to help their subjects [as] lies … are useful as a type of medicine’ (Republic 459c/d).
The Republic abounds with examples of all sorts of censorship that Plato proposes for his ideal State. His rulers’ ‘first job’ will be to ‘oversee the work of the story-writers, and to accept any good story they write, but reject the others’ (Republic, 377b/c). Specifically, they will ‘employ … poets and story-tellers to speak in the style of a good man and to keep in their stories to their principles we originally established as lawful’ (Republic, 398b/c). Plato’s reactionary attitude towards music is characteristic. He wants his rulers to even censor particular music scales (according to the undesirable human characteristics they purportedly promote), and he claims that ‘any change in the musical modes affects the most important laws of a community’ (Republic, 398e-399a, and 424c). Again, for Plato any change is evil.
How do Plato’s rulers get into the position to be able to impose censorship at such a scale? How do the philosopher kings come to control a population so tightly that nobody reacts against their totalitarian directives? From Plato’s writing it seems clear that these questions must have bothered him a lot. Failing to answer these questions would have made his whole totalitarian creation implode as unrealizable.
The answer is violence.
In the foundational myth of his State in The Republic, known as the myth of the ‘earthborn’, Plato describes the subjugation of an existing city by the invading earthborn:
‘After having armed and trained the earthborn, let us now make them advance, under the command of the guardians, till they arrive in the city. Then let them look round to find out the best place for their camp — the spot that is most suitable for keeping down the inhabitants, should anyone show unwillingness to obey the law.’ (Republic, 415d/e quoted in Open Society, p. 49)
His radical philosopher kings ‘will take as their canvas a city and the characters of men, and they will, first of all, make their canvas clean’ (Republic, 501a quoted in Open Society, p. 155). While discussing the feasibility of realizing this plan, Plato’s Socrates gives us the details:
‘The community may be difficult to realize, but it’s feasible; the essential prerequisite … is that genuine philosophers … wield power. … [These philosophers] have to find … nothing more important and essential than morality, which they serve and foster as they take in hand every detail of their community. … First they banish everyone over the age of ten into the countryside. … Then they take charge of the community’s children and make sure that they’re beyond the reach of existing conventions, which their parents adhere to, and bring them up under their own customs and laws, which are similar to the ones we were describing before. That’s the quickest and simplest way for the community and political system we’ve been discussing to be established, to attain happiness, and to benefit the people among whom they occur.’ (Republic, 540d-541a)
Plato further comments in The Statesman:
‘Whether they happen to rule by law or without law, over willing or unwilling subjects; … and whether they purge the state for its good, by killing or by deporting some of its citizens … — so long as they proceed according to science and justice and preserve … the state and make it better than it was, this form of government must be declared the only one that is right.’ (Statesman, 293c-e quoted in Open Society, p. 155)
Popper, quoting Cornford, says that Plato ‘expresses no humanitarian sympathies extending beyond the borders of [Greece]’ (Open Society, p. 597). Plato says that Greeks should not enslave other Greeks but only non-Greeks (Republic, 469b/c). For Plato, Greeks and non-Greeks are ‘natural enemies’; only Greeks are ‘natural friends’ with other Greeks, ‘bonded to one another by internal ties of blood and kinship’ (Republic, 470c).
Seventy years after the first publication of Karl Popper’s forceful critique of Plato’s political theory in The Open Society and Its Enemies, we are still under ‘the spell of Plato’, as Popper aptly put it in the title of the first volume of The Open Society. Plato’s spell is so deeply entrenched in Western culture that it makes us think that it is possible to cherry-pick only the ‘good stuff’ from his abhorrent theory, or, criticize just ‘some aspects’ of it. What is more, his spell extends to other, equally abhorrent, theories.
Ancient writers like Plato are special in that many criticisms can be brushed aside by playing the ‘anachronism card’. ‘You should not judge Plato by today’s moral and political standards!’ they will tell you. There is some subtlety here though. The anachronism card is usually played only for the ‘bad stuff’. There is a tacit assumption that there is a law of progress at play: we, as products of moral progress, are now capable of knowing exactly which part of Plato’s theory is good and which part is bad, so that we can then be lenient towards Plato for ‘being a product of his time’.
I disagree with the anachronism argument. If we invoke anachronism for suspending criticism about what we think is bad in Plato’s theories, then we should also suspend acceptance of what we think is good. If we read Plato and other ancient thinkers, we do so to get some insight into human affairs which can be useful to us in the present. What the cherry-picking attitude does instead is that it tries to find in Plato what agrees with some current opinion, and then uses Plato’s authority to legitimize it.
Throwing away the ‘bad stuff’ and then analyzing the ‘good stuff’ has a severe methodological flaw: it assumes independence between the good and the bad stuff. This type of ‘analysis’ assumes that none of the bad ideas can be a consequence of the supposedly good ones. I argue that if we are to use the work of the ancients we should try to see it in its entirety. Even if we accept the belief that we are capable of picking the ‘good stuff’ now, this does not guarantee that we will be able to continue doing so in the future, if we fail to properly criticize the bad.
Some days ago, a Greek leftist I met in London told me (a fellow Greek) and a Slovak that ‘communism is a good idea implemented badly’. Perhaps he was ignorant of what communism is. Or he did not know that Slovakia actually had communism. The point is that even communism can apparently sound like ‘a good idea’ to a 30-year-old from a European country that did not have communism; so much as to have the nerve to lecture someone from an ex-communist country on that.
I think the key to understanding this attitude is as much in the ‘good idea’ as in the ‘implemented badly’ part of the thesis. Separating ‘idea’ from ‘implementation’ is a dishonest moral stance. Those who would not fly on a badly implemented plane, are happy to put human lives at risk because an idea sounds good. Every idea about how society could be organized has an associated implementation. In fact, there is no such clear-cut distinction between theory and implementation in political ideas. To ignore that is either naive or immoral. It is the ‘good stuff-bad stuff’ fallacy all over again, with ‘idea’ as the ‘good stuff’ and ‘implementation’ as the ‘bad stuff’.
I think that it is precisely this attitude that makes people numb against radical Islam. It is not lack of understanding of the making of the radical interpretations of the Quran; it is intimate understanding. In the same way that one can cherry-pick from The Republic the vague and good-sounding ‘ideas’ of the power of knowledge, the ‘clean canvas’ and the wise philosopher kings, one can cherry-pick the ‘implementation’ of totalitarian government, state censorship and violent conquests. The complacency of thinking that you can always choose the ‘good stuff’ because you are a morally superior being — by virtue of ‘progress’ — to those who came before you breaks down when you encounter your attitude in (what you think is) its reverse.
Lately, the word ‘radical’ is used too lightheartedly. Apparently, these days one can be ‘sort of a radical’, ‘moderately radical’ or ‘have some radical ideas’. This is a misleading way of talking about radicalism. The only consideration should be what one’s ideas entail in practice. In practice radicalism entails violence. No ‘good stuff’ there.
Plato, c. 380 BC, The Republic. (Oxford World’s Classics, 2008, translated by Robin Waterfield)
Karl Popper, 1945, The Open Society and Its Enemies. (Routledge Classics, 2011)
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